Special Issue: Trump and the 2016 Election

Don’t Feed the Trolls: Bold Climate Action in a New, Golden Age of Denialism

by Marcus Hedahl and Travis N. Rieder

ABSTRACT. In trying to motivate climate action, many of those concerned about altering the status quo focus on trying to convince climate deniers of the error of their ways. In the wake of the  2016 Election, one might believe that now, more than ever, it is tremendously important to convince those who deny the reality of climate science of the well-established facts. We argue, however, that the time has come to revisit this line of reasoning.  With a significant majority of voters supporting taxing or regulating greenhouse gases, those who want to spur climate action ought to focus instead on getting a critical mass of climate believers to be appropriately alarmed. Doing so, we contend, may prove more useful in creating the political will necessary to spur bold climate action than would engaging directly with climate deniers.

Less than a month after the 2016 presidential election, incoming White House Chief of Staff Reince Priebus stated that climate change denialism would be the “default position” of the Trump administration (Meyjes 2016). In March 2017, Scott Pruit, President Trump’s choice to lead the Environmental Protection Agency, expressed his belief—contrary to the estabilished scientific consensus—that carbon dioxide was not one of the primary contributors of climate change (Davenport 2107). Given this existence of climate denialism at the highest reaches of U.S. government, one might believe that, now more than ever, it is tremendously important to convince those who deny the reality of climate science of the well-established facts.[1] Surely, with truth on our side, we must trumpet the evidence, making deniers our primary target and acceptance of the truth of climate change our primary goal.

The time has come, however, to revisit this line of reasoning. We’ve spent too much time and energy trying to convince climate deniers of the obvious facts,[2] and false optimism has been too friendly to our entrenched inaction.[3] Arguing the science against the deep-rooted climate denial of a small but influential portion of American society has failed to achieve even modest climate action. The election of Donald Trump is, sadly, almost assuredly going to make the task more difficult, given his appointments of prominent climate deniers and fossil fuel advocates to every climate-relevant cabinet position (Sidahmed 2016). If successful climate action depended on convincing the radical deniers, we would justifiably despair at the task before us.

Fortunately, there is another strategy for motivating climate action, and it does not rely on convincing those hopelessly incalcitrant to being swayed by scientific evidence. New public opinion polling data on climate change beliefs suggest another way forward for cultivating the will to enact climate policy: In short, we need to focus on getting a critical mass of the believers to be appropriately alarmed. Doing so, we contend, may prove significantly more useful in creating the political will necessary to spur bold climate action than by engaging directly with climate deniers.



To better understand climate denialism, it will be helpful to consider one particularly vivid example: Senator Jim Inhofe, author of The Greatest Hoax: How the Global Warming Conspiracy Threatens Your Future. In 2015, Sen Inhofe held up a snowball on the floor of the U.S. Senate in an attempt to “disprove” the overwhelming scientific consensus regarding our changing climate. One may initially attribute these kinds of stunts to a lack of basic scientific acumen. After all, no one thinks rising global temperatures imply the immediate end of snow everywhere on the planet. Thankfully, however, we need not hypothesize about the Senator’s reasons for denying the reality of climate change; he did us the favor of making them explicit by proclaiming, “Do you realize I was actually on [the climate change] side of this issue when I was chairing that committee and first heard about this? I thought it must be true until I found out what it would cost.”[4] His lack of understanding, then, seems not to be a scientific one, but something else altogether.

It might be tempting to dismiss Sen. Inhofe as an anomaly on this score. Unfortunately, however, he is not alone in possessing these particular epistemic motivations. In a recent study, research participants who identified as Republican were more than twice as likely to affirm a plausible scientific prediction (namely that, ‘Global temperatures will rise 3.2 degrees in the 21st century’) when it was paired with a free market solution to avoid it than when it was paired with a policy solution involving taxes and regulation (Campbell and Kay 2014). This evidence suggests that climate change deniers don’t always become deniers because they reject the science behind climate change; rather, some may well become deniers because they dislike the proposed solutions—generally regulation or taxes. For such individuals, their dislike of proposed solutions to the problem appears to color their view on whether or not the science regarding the underlying issue is reliable.[5]

In short, climate skeptics demonstrate the limits of the deficit model of scientific communication, a model that holds that popular opinions differ from a given scientific consensus only when citizens lack scientific knowledge (Requarth 2017). In the domain of climate change, scientific literacy actually has a small negative effect on developing accurate beliefs about climate change: among those who take themselves to be conservative, those who know the most about science take climate change to pose the least amount of risk (Kahan et al. 2012). These conservative, scientifically knowledgable citizens are already aware of the scientific consensus—they simply reject it (Kahan 2014).

This phenomenon fits well with Michael Mann’s “Six stages of climate change denial,” in which climate deniers tend to move (sometimes fluidly) from outright denial of the science, to denial of human causation, to denial of serious harm, to optimism about human adaptability (2012). These moves make little sense when considered as an attempt to formulate a coherent system of beliefs, but climate denial is generally more pragmatic than epistemic: For deniers, any dialectical move that postpones action—particularly the kind of bold action needed to combat climate change—is a winning one. If you jokingly point out the folly of using a local snowfall to disprove a change in average global temperature, many climate deniers will laugh right along with you. Despite their pronouncements to the contrary, they aren’t using the snow to claim that climate change doesn’t exist, but rather to claim that a world of climate change won’t be so dissimilar to our own. Any policy response that’s even slightly costly would always thereby be inappropriate because, as they like to say, “the climate is always changing.”

The problem, of course, is that the world won’t be so different for them: privileged adults currently living in the developed world. If the reasoning behind that kind of climate denial were merely lavishly imprudent—and, for what it’s worth, it is (Stern et al. 2006; Stern et al. 2014)—the rest of us might be able to tolerate it as an input to our collective civic discourse (Habermas 1991). Yet in today’s tightly interconnected world, the venerable requirement not to harm others gives us a number of novel, moral reasons for action (Shue 2010a). These reasons become even stronger given the fact that we know that the impacts of climate change will not be regionally uniform, with many of the least fortunate most vulnerable to its most adverse effects (Stocker et al. 2013). These differences in vulnerability become even more salient when we consider issues of intergenerational justice (Barry 1997; Broome 2012). If we realize that one of the purposes of the language of justice is to provide normative protections for the vulnerable, we quickly realize that for future generations and those already less fortunate, the status quo with respect to climate change is not merely imprudent but also immoral (Shue 2010b). What this tells us is that for many climate deniers, their espoused denial of the science isn’t motivated solely by skepticism of the scientific reasoning, but also a rejection of the moral imperatives that stem from that reasoning.

So, we are left in a dialectically impossible situation with the denier of climate change. They claim to deny the science, so an appeal to justice will leave them unmoved—after all, why should we sacrifice to solve a moral problem that doesn’t actually exist? Yet a move to the scientific realm will be equally unsuccessful if the root disagreement is as much normative as it is descriptive. The denier of climate change thereby becomes a moving target that we are left unable to engage, let alone convince.



If what we’ve said thus far is plausible, then we have good reason to believe that at least some climate deniers are unlikely to abandon their position even in the face of contrary evidence, in part because their denial is motivated by their dislike of the proposed policy solutions. This state of affairs would be especially problematic if climate deniers constituted a majority of the population, and so could easily turn their views into political will. Recent data suggests, however, that climate denialism doesn’t enjoy anything like a majority. According to the Yale Program on Climate Change Communication, in 2016, 72% of Americans regarded climate change with ‘caution’, ‘concern’, or ‘alarm’ (Roser-Renouf 2016).[6] In other words, a clear and significant majority of Americans “believe in” the reality of climate change and would be amenable to some form of climate action.

The problem remains, however, that mere belief in anthropogenic climate change isn’t sufficient to motivate climate action. Indeed, nearly half of Trump supporters (49%) report believing that climate change is occurring, but that didn’t stop them from voting for an avowed climate denier (Leiserowitz 2017). Individuals must also be aware of the consequences of inaction, rather than merely that a problem exists; for what distinguishes the cautious, concerned, and alarmed is how important they take the issue of climate change to be, how much they are worried about climate change, and how long they think it will be before people are harmed by climate change. For far too many, climate change is taken to be yet another issue among many, ranking behind objectively less dangerous problems, like gun control or infrastructure (Roser-Renouf 2016). There’s little reason to believe, therefore, that even near universal belief in the existence of a problem would be sufficient to spur bold and radical climate action.

We want to suggest an alternative to trying to create a universal consensus about the reality of climate change: Focusing on the cautious and concerned in order to get them to reconsider the significance of the climate crises. There are at least two reasons that this approach may prove to be more efficacious than continuing to browbeat climate deniers. First, those who are cautious and concerned about climate change are much more malleable than are those who deny the fact of climate change altogether. These individuals have considered the issue much less thoroughly, and they report that they are much more open to revising their opinions about climate change’s relative significance (Leiserowitz et al. 2009). Second, although U.S. citizens remain divided on the question of whether regulation is beneficial for the public interest in general (42% believing it is to 45% believing it is not), in the more specific domain of environmental protection, that division is significantly diminished, with many more believing that environmental regulations are generally worth the costs they may impose (59% believing environmental regulations are in general beneficial for the public interest to 34% believing they are not). Indeed, 62% of self-identified Trump voters support taxing and or regulating greenhouse gases (Leiserowitz 2017). The cautious and concerned, then, may be receptive both to reconsider the seriousness of climate change, as well as the need for government regulation.

We therefore recommend focusing on those who are cautious and concerned in order to make them appropriately alarmed. We do so despite recognizing that the language of ‘alarm’ is not particularly popular in climate change debates, in no small part because ‘alarmist’ is a preferred moniker by the deniers for those who advocate for climate action. Alarmism may well be disreputable if one were trying to scare others in the absence of evidence (perhaps wearing billboards saying, ‘the end is nigh!’). We contend, however, that the reasons to be alarmed can be based on the same, solid data that justifies a belief in climate change itself. The same scientific evidence that demonstrates that the climate is changing also tells us that relatively small changes in the earth’s climate can have drastic effects on the planet’s life-support systems. And alarm, we think, is precisely the appropriate normative reaction to such facts. In a way, then, our goal is a kind of reclamation project: climate alarmism isn’t an epithet to anyone but the denier, and so we shouldn’t be bullied into avoiding (sometimes dire) warnings. Of course we’re alarmed, because we find the situation objectively alarming.



If the percentage of those Americans who are alarmed about climate change were slightly higher, then perhaps we would start to see real change: change in the public dialogue, change in what we demand of our policy makers, and ultimately change in public policy. Yet developing a deep understanding of the threat of climate change and the demands of justice is difficult: the problem is global in scale, the effects are occurring over a fairly long time-scale (for humans), and the threats pose a type of danger that we simply haven’t experienced before. So, climate change is often spoken about it in a abstract way, normalizing the processes with thousands of headlines that lack any kind of intimate drama: “Climate change may decrease wheat yield in Bangladesh by more than 30% by 2050,” or “Record-breaking heat waves may become the norm, say scientists.” Such normalization makes the problem seem far off and difficult to relate to in our everyday lives. The cautious and concerned citizens affirm these statements, and acknowledge that at some point, someone, somewhere really ought to do…something.

The unfortunate truth that we must face is that motivating people is often difficult—especially if what we must motivate them to do runs counter to their more immediate self-interest. Exacerbating this issue is the fact that we are all subject to predictable biases.[7] One that is particularly relevant for present purposes is that we tend to move slowly from our initial response to climate change, thinking that it must not be that bad, or else someone would be doing something about it. After all, most of us only hear the same kinds of political solutions we hear in other areas of political discourse: a modest change in taxation, new investments of research and development funds, or regulations treating CO2 as a pollutant. It’s not surprising, therefore, that so many take climate change to be yet another issue among many. If you only hear more tempered solutions to the climate problem, you are more likely to believe that one of them must be sufficient to solve the crisis.

Some have advocated that one possible solution would be to appeal to emotions rather than reasons, focusing on sympathetic or relatable figures (Requarth 2017). A powerful example of this type of appeal can be found in Susan Mathew’s recent analysis of the Podcast S-Town:

In reality, the feeling I get when I think deeply about climate change is the same feeling I get when I remember that someday, at some point, I, me, myself personally, am going to die. There’s fear and disbelief, and my heart seems to collapse in on itself. Eventually, something in me forces myself to stop thinking about it…John B. didn’t have this defense mechanism…He felt the reality of our impending doom every day. He kept staring off the edge of the cliff. He couldn’t look away. Which reaction is “normal”? Mine is certainly more common. It’s also more pragmatic…But if you want to ask which is more logical, which is more moral, which is more correct, the answer is surely John’s. What kind of human can look ahead and realize that we’re headed for a massive disaster and then shrug and still order takeout?” (2017)

Another effective example imagines future tourism posters encouraging vistors to scuba dive the Lincoln Memorial, kayak Arches National Park, and visit the Pacific Coast in Nevada (Lui 2017).

These kinds of appeals surely have some place in the larger climate communication strategies, but they are vulnerable to the charge of hyperbole. They are also suceptable to counter-emotional appeals by those who want to defend the status quo. To acquiesce to emotional appeals wholeheartedly, even to mix emotional appeals with scientific data, is to forfeit the objective, epistemic high ground that science is meant to provide. The kind of stable and widespread climate alarm that has the potential to spur bold climate action cannot be primilarly the product of an appeal to emotion.

In order to get people to grasp the true danger climate change threatens—or, in other words, in order to alter beliefs about climate changes without brute appeal to emotion—we contend that, the climate crises must be shown to be both more tangible and more urgent. Two strategies that we want to suggest are:

  1. Grounding larger, global changes in smaller, local ones; and
  2. Grounding future effects in changes that are already occurring.[8]

In short: we suggest fighting typical cognitive biases by bringing the global and future effects back home to the local and present.

With respect to the first strategy, we can begin by noting that citizens—even citizens in a landscape littered with a focus on climate denialism—generally understand and acknowledge the local impacts of our changing climate (McCormick 2016). In the United States, many citizens are well aware of the changes affecting them—of how, in the Midwest, higher nighttime temperatures have reduced corn yields (Thaler 2016); or how in the West, exposure to higher temperatures have caused losses in livestock that have exceeded $1 billion annually (Hatfield et al. 2014); or how in Miami, FL, or Hampton VA, rising sea levels are already threatening local infrastructure (Thaler 2016) and may already be impacting the long-term value of local real-estate (Nehemas 2016).

With respect to the second strategy, we can highlight that these changes occurring in our own neighborhoods are unprecedented, worsening, and threatening genuinely terrifying days to come. All over, warmer air is holding more moisture, increasing the severity of deadly whether events. Between October 2015 and October 2016, the United States was subjected to eight storms that would, without climate change, be once-every-500-years storms (NOAA 2016). The flooding that caused so much devastation in Louisiana (Vaidyanathan 2016),[9] West Virginia (Dileberto 2016)[10] and Maryland (Dance 2016)[11] have each been called a once-every-1000-years event. Unfortunately, climate change has made terms like ‘once-every-1000-years storm’ meaningless. We can expect these types of events—and worse—year after year.

The last 30 years have been warmer than any since 1850 and they are very likely the warmest in the last 1400 years (Stoker et al. 2013). More recently, 2016 was the hottest year on record, replacing 2015, which replaced 2014. We are already seeing disturbing disruptions of precisely the kind predicted by climate models. Unprecedented ‘heat domes’ have caused deadly temperatures during the past two years, especially in the Middle East, where the heat index climbed to 165 degrees F during July 2015 (Samenow 2015). At the end of 2016, in the Arctic winter, when temperatures should be plunging and sea ice should be expanding rapidly, temperatures were soaring, and sea ice was actually shrinking (Yulsman 2016).

People are already suffering, losing their homes, and dying because of human emissions. Globally, earlier spring temperatures have disrupted critical ecosystem services on which human society depends (i.e., clean air and water, crop pollination, etc.) (Staudinger et al. 2012). Water resources have become scarce and more highly variable (Haddeland et al. 2014), with associated negative consequences for crop yields (Lobell et al. 2011) as well as food security overall (Shindell et al. 2012). And it will only get worse. The World Health Orginization estimates that between 2030 and 2050, climate disruptions will cause an additional 250,000 deaths per year (WHO 2014).

If we continue business as usual for too long, then in the latter half of the century, we will face the much more dangerous reality of a 4–5 degree C rise in temperature, bringing virtually unimaginable damage and suffering. The world of unmitigated climate change is a world in which, by 2100, large swaths of the world (portions of North Africa, the Middle East, and the Mediterranean) will be virtually uninhabitable in the summer months due to heat. Low-lying island nations and coastal regions will disappear, creating millions more climate refugees (World Bank Group 2014). Combined with escalating food insecurity and severe water stress, as well as changing disease vectors and the political instability that could result from all of these pressures, the world of under-mitigated climate change will be a world of massive human suffering.



While granting that a change in climate communications could alter public discourse in a positive way, some may nonetheless worry that current polical realities complicate that recommendation. One could believe that ignoring the climate denials of those with a vested interest in maintaining the status quo is one thing, but ignoring the climate denials of those in positions of political power is quite another. In this section, we want to suggest that while this state of affairs is indeed troubling, the best strategy may nonetheless be an indirect one. The time has come to give up on convincing climate deniers of the obvious facts—even deniers in high elected office—but that does not imply that we need resign ourselves to a future of climate inaction.

In the 2016 election, the differences in level of concern regarding climate change among the cautious, concerned, and alarmed was reflected in different choices of a Presidential Candidate. While the ‘alarmed’ citizens rank the issues of environmental protection, climate change, and alternative sources of energy at or near the top of their policy concerns, the ‘concerned’ rank those issues somewhere in the middle behind issues like infrastructure and gun control, and the ‘cautious’ rank them near the bottom of several dozen listed options (Roser-Renouf 2016). Unsurprisingly, the relative size of these various groups ended up having an influence on both the democratic primary and the general election.[12] In 2016, the percentage of Americans who categorize themselves as “alarmed” was merely 17% in comparison with 28% who are concerned and 27% who are cautious (Roser-Renouf 2016). While those ‘alarmed’ is up from 10% in 2010,[13] it was not enough to nominate a 2016 presidential candidate in either party with a platform of significant climate action, nor was it enough to stop a climate denier from eventually taking office. In other words, the reality of climate change, while accepted by most people, was not sufficiently important either to nominate a genuine environmental champion, or even to prevent the election of an outright climate denier. What this seems to suggest is that one way the last election could have been changed (or that the next one could be) is by engaging unmotivated believers in an effort to make climate policy a more important voting issue. One clear benefit to spreading appropriate alarm concerning climate change is that, at a minimum, widespread understanding of the gamble we are taking with the climate could help to prevent the election of proud climate deniers to elected office (e.g., Trump, Inhofe, Rubio, Cruz, and dozens of others).[14]

The quick and radical change in elective officials’ attitudes towards cigarette regulation may prove to be a useful case study on this score. The change in the positions of a majority of elected officials was not brought about because old representatives were replaced with new ones,[15] but because—either out of pragmatic or democratic concerns—many elected officials changed their position as their constituents’ views changed. Long before the changes in cigarette regulation of the 1980s,1990s, and 2000s, there was a widespread belief that cigarette smoking was dangerous. It was, however, developing a better understanding of who would be harmed, how they would be harmed, and when they would be harmed that spurred a change in belief about the significance of the issue.

That kind of understanding can also lead to an even more important political benefit of increased alarm: Not only would it limit the ability of one party to tolerate climate deniers, it could lead many in the other to become less likely to tolerate climate moderates. Becoming appropriately alarmed allows citizens to realize a fundamental truth: Climate change will require dramatic political action. Not only will combating climate change require policies like carbon taxing, but it will also likely demand the kind of solutions almost never raised in mainstream discussions of climate policy, solutions such as divesting pension funds from fossil fuel companies and taking preventive action to strand trillions of dollars of fossil fuels in the ground.[16] The problem is serious. The solutions required to solve it are very likely not what they were twenty, ten, or even five years ago. We need an Apollo Program, or a Manhattan Project, not merely an expansion of New England’s cap and trade market (McKibben 2016). In today’s world, the only way to even begin a truthful conversation about our climate policies is to be sufficiently alarmed.



In the coming years, as President Trump threatens to roll back even our already insufficient, incremental progress on climate change, citizens must fight back against those measures—but we cannot do so by simply fighting against denialism. We must talk about climate more: every year, every month, every week, but we must do so strategically, investing our efforts where they are likely to have a real effect. We must make clear what is at stake and what the costs of inaction will be, thereby making it more likely that we can achieve a citizenry that is appropriately alarmed.

To do so, it is important to recognize that not all deniers are scientific deniers; their flaws are more than merely epistemic. They agitate, they obfuscate, and they dominate discussion. One cannot win an argument with someone whose goal is to keep others talking about their incalcitrant, untethered beliefs. To participate in that “argument” is, by definition, to lose it. Engaging the denier is not a costless endeavor; the world continues to burn. While it does, far too many get distracted, they view themselves on the “right side of history,” and give themselves moral credit for doing nothing more than believing the most brute facts of modern science. We must do more: We must become keenly aware of the specific dangers climate change poses and we must spur bold climate action. We’ve likely already lost the next four years to climate policy regression; we can’t risk losing any more.


Dr. Marcus Hedahl is an Assistant Professor of Philosophy at the U.S. Naval Academy. He holds a B.S. in Physics from the University of Notre Dame and a Ph.D. in Philosophy from Georgetown University. He previously served as a Dahrendorf Postdoctoral Research Fellow at the Grantham Research Institute on Climate Change and the Environment located at the London School of Economics and Political Science and as an Environmental Justice Fellow at the Kennedy Institute of Ethics.

Travis N. Rieder is the Assistant Director of Education Initiatives & a Research Scholar at the Johns Hopkins Berman Institute of Bioethics. Travis holds a BA from Hanover College, an MA from the University of South Carolina, and a PhD from Georgetown University, all in Philosophy. He also completed a Hecht-Levi Postdoctoral Fellowship in Bioethics at the Berman Institute before joining the faculty in 2015.



Barry, Brian. 1997. “Sustainability and Intergenerational Justice,” Theoria 44 (89): 43–65.

Broome, John. 2012. Climate Matters. New York: W.W. Norton & Company.

Campbell, Troy, Aaron C. Kay. 2014. “Solution Aversion: On the Relation between Ideology and Motivated Disbelief.” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 107 (5): 809–24.

Dance, Scott. 2016. “Ellicott City Gets Rainfall Expected Only Once Every Millennium.” Balitmore Sun, July 31. Accessed February 26, 2017, http://www.baltimoresun.com/news/weather/weather-blog/bal-wx-ellicott-city-gets-rainfall-expected-only-once-every-few-hundred-years-20160731-story.html.

Davenport, Coral. 2017. “E.P.A. Chief Doubts Consensus View of Climate Change.” New York Times, March 9. https://www.nytimes.com/2017/03/09/us/politics/epa-scott-pruitt-global-warming.html?_r=0

Di Liberto, Tom. 2016. “’Thousand-Year’ Downpour Led to Deadly West Virginia Floods.” Climate.gov, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, Accessed February 26, 2017. https://www.climate.gov/news-features/event-tracker/thousand-year-downpour-led-deadly-west-virginia-floods/

Gardiner, Stephen M. 2013. A Perfect Moral Storm. Oxford: Oxford University Press

Habermas, Jurgen. 1991. The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere: An Inquiry into the Category of Bourgeois Society. Translated by Burger, T. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Haddeland, Ingjerd, Jens Heinke, Hester Biemans, et al. 2014. “Global Water Resources Affected by Human Interventions and Climate Change.” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 111 (9): 3251–56.

Haidt, Jonathan. 2001. “The Emotional Dog and Its Rational Tail.” Psychological Review 108 (4): 814–34.

Hatfield, Jerry, Gene Takle, Robert Grotjahn, et al. “Agri­culture. Climate Change Impacts in the United States: The Third National Climate Assessment.” In U.S. Global Change Research Program, edited by J. M. Melillo, Terese (T.C.) Richmond, and G. W. Yohe, 150–74.

Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. 2014. Climate Change 2014: Impacts, Adaptation and Vulnerability. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Jamieson, Dale. (2014). Reason in a Dark Time. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Johansson, Daniel J. A., Brian C. O’Neill, Claudia Tebaldi, and Olle Häggström. 2015. “Equilibrium Climate Sensitivity in Light of Observations Over the Warming Hiatus.” Nature Climate Change 5: 449–53.

Kahan, Dan M., Ellen Peters, and Maggie Witttlin, et al. 2012. “The Polarizing Impact of Science Literacy and Numeracy on Perceived Climate Change Risks.” May 27. Nature Climate Change 2, Letters.

Kahan, Dan. 2015. “Climate-Science Communication and the Measurement Problem.”Advances in Political Psychology 36: 1–43.

Knobe, Joshua. 2003. “Intentional Action and Side Effects in Ordinary Language.” Analysis 63, 190–93.

Leiserowitz, Anthony, Edward Maibach, and Connie Roser-Renouf. 2009. “Global Warming’s Six Americas.” May 20. Yale University and George Mason University. New Haven, CT: Yale Program on Climate Change Communication.

Leiserowitz, Anthony, Edward Maibach, Connie Roser-Renouf, Matthew Cutler, and Seth Rosenthal. 2017. “Trump Voters & Global Warming. Yale University and George Mason University.” February 6. New Haven, CT: Yale Program on Climate Change Communication.

Lobell, David, Wolfram Schlenker, and Justin Costa-Roberts. 2011. “Climate Trends and Global Crop Production Since 1980.” Science 333 (6042): 616–20.

Lui, Kevin. 2017. “These Spoof Posters Show What Climate Change in America Could Look Like.” Time, April 19. http://time.com/4747673/climate-change-march-for-science-posters/

Mann, Michael. 2012. The Hockey Stick and the Climate Wars: Dispatches from the Front Lines. New York: Columbia University Press.

Matthews, Susan. 2017. “Why John B.’s Climate Obsession in S-Town is so Unsettling.” Slate, April 13. http://www.slate.com/blogs/browbeat/2017/04/13/why_john_b_mclemore_s_obsession_with_climate_change_in_s_town_is_so_unsettling.html

McCormick, Sabrina. 2016. “Assessing Climate Change Vulnerability in Urban America: Stakeholder-Driven Approaches.” Climate Change 138: 397–410.

McKibben, Bill. 2012. “Global Warming’s Terrifying New Math.” Rolling Stone, July 19. Accessed February 21, 2017. http://www.rollingstone.com/politics/news/global-warmings-terrifying-new-math-20120719.

———. 2016. “Recalculating the Climate Math.” New Republic, September 22. Accessed February 21, 2017. https://newrepublic.com/article/136987/recalculating-climate-math.

Meyjes, Toby. 2016. “Climate Denial ‘Will be Donald Trump’s Official Policy.” Metro U.K., November 29. Accessed January 9, 2017. http://metro.co.uk/2016/11/29/climate-denial-will-be-donald-trumps-official-policy-6290224/.

Nehemas, Nicholas. 2016. “Miami Real Estate Had a Really Bad Month of July.” Miami Herald, August 24. Accessed January 15, 2017. http://www.miamiherald.com/news/business/real-estate-news/article97640357.html#storylink=cpy.

National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). 2016. “Exceedance Probability Analysis for Selected Storm Events.” Hydrometeorological Design Studies Center. http://www.nws.noaa.gov/oh/hdsc/aep_storm_analysis/index.html.

Requarth, Tim. 2017. “Scientists, Stop Thinking Explaining Science Will Fix Things.” Slate, April 19. http://www.slate.com/articles/health_and_science/science/2017/04/explaining_science_won_t_fix_information_illiteracy.html

Rogelj, Joeri, Michel den Elzen M, Niklas Hoehne, et al. 2016. “Paris Agreement Climate Proposals Need a Boost to Keep Warming Well Below 2°C.” Nature 534: 631–39. Accessed February 21, 2017.

Roser-Renouf, Connie, Edward Maibach, Anthony Leiserowitz, and Seth Rosenthal. 2016. “Global Warming’s Six Americas and the Election.” 2016. Yale University and George Mason University. New Haven, CT: Yale Program on Climate Change Communication.

Samenow, Jason. 2015. “Iran City Hits Suffocating Heat Index of 165 Degrees, Near World Record.” The Washington Post, July 31. Accessed February 21, 2017. https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/capital-weather-gang/wp/2015/07/30/iran-city-hits-suffocating-heat-index-of-154-degrees-near-world-record/?utm_term=.22457bb44846.

Sidahmed, Mazin. 2016. “Climate Change Denial in the Trump Cabinet: Where Do His Nominees Stand?” The Guardian, December 15. Accessed January 9, 2017. https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2016/dec/15/trump-cabinet-climate-change-deniers.

Shue, Henry. 2010a. “Subsistence Emissions and Luxury Emissions,” in S. Gardiner, S. Caney, D. Jamieson, & H. Shue (eds.) Climate Ethics: Essential Readings, Oxford: Oxford University Press.

———. 2010b “Deadly Delays, Saving Opportunities: Creating a More Dangerous World?” In Climate Ethics: Essential Readings, edited by Stephen Gardiner, Simon Caney, Dale Jamieson, and Henry Shue, 146–62. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Shindell, Drew, Johan C. Kuylenstierna, Elisabetta Vignati, et al. 2012. “Simultaneously Mitigating Near-term Climate Change and Improving Human Health and Food Security,” Science 335 (6065): 183–89.

Schwartz, John. 2017. “A Conservative Climate Solution.” New York Times. Feb 7. https://www.nytimes.com/2017/02/07/science/a-conservative-climate-solution-republican-group-calls-for-carbon-tax.html

Staudinger, Michelle D., Nancy B. Grimm, Amanda Staudt, et al. 2012. “Impacts of Climate Change on Biodiversity, Ecosystems, and Ecosystem Services: Technical Input to the 2013 National Climate Assessment.” United States Global Change Research Program. https://downloads.globalchange.gov/nca/technical_inputs/Biodiversity-Ecosystems-and-Ecosystem-Services-Technical-Input.pdf

Stocker, Thomas., Dahe Qin, Gian-Casper Plattner, et al., editors. 2013. “Climate Change 2013: The Physical Science Basis. Contribution of Working Group I to the Fifth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.” Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Thaler, Andrew David. 2016. “When I Talk about Climate Change, I Don’t Talk about Science.” Accessed January 15, 2017. http://www.southernfriedscience.com/when-i-talk-about-climate-change-i-dont-talk-about-science/.

Vaidyanathan, Gayathri. 2016. “Why the Deadly Louisiana Flood Occurred,” Scientific American, August 15. Accessed February 26, 2017. https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/why-the-deadly-louisiana-flood-occurred/

World Health Organization (WHO). 2014. Quantitative Risk Assessment of the Effects of Climate Change on Selected Causes of Death, 2030s and 2050s. Geneva: World Health Organization.

World Bank Group. 2014. Turn Down the Heat: Confronting the New Climate Normal. Washington, DC: World Bank.

Yulsman, Tom. 2016. “Something Really Crazy Is Happening in the Arctic.” Discover, November 20. Accessed January 9, 2017. http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/imageo/2016/11/20/something-really-crazy-is-happening-in-the-arctic/#.WHPOcVs7RGZ.



[1] This claim should not be read to imply a denial of any disagreement about the specifics of climate change. There is, for example, significant uncertainty regarding the amount of warming we should expect given a doubling of atmospheric carbon dioxide (3 degrees Celsius is a common estimate, but this is a point of much debate). For a brief overview of this issue – known as equilibrium climate sensitivity – see the discussion of the so-called ‘warming hiatus’ in (Johansson et al 2015). There is also disagreement about precisely how successful and predictive various climate models are. Although groups like the Potsdam Institute have made strong claims about what a world with 4 degrees Celsius warming would be like, the IPCC assessment reports, for instance, tend to assign much lower confidence levels to predictions concerning dramatic change over longer periods of time; compare (Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change 2014) and (World Bank Group 2014).

[2] A particularly powerful reading of the history of climate debate can be found in Jamieson (2014).

[3] Indeed, although the Paris Treaty is being widely hailed as a major first step in global climate action, it is nothing like a ‘first’ step. It was the outcome of COP21, or ‘Conference of the Parties 21’, meaning that it was at least the twenty-first “first step.” Moreover, as has been widely noted, the commitments made at COP21 are not nearly enough on their own to prevent dangerous warming; the most recent numbers indicate that faithful adherence to the Paris Treaty would limit warming to between 2.9 and 3.4 degrees Celsius (Rogelj et al) – a far cry from the aspirational limit of 1.5 degrees set in that very same document.

[4] Sen. Inhofe made this comment during an interview on Rachel Maddow. The complete transcript of the show is available at NBC, here: http://www.nbcnews.com/id/46762101/ (last accessed Feb. 21, 2017).

[5] Although such a finding is, in one sense, surprising (the desirability of a solution simply doesn’t bear on whether a problem exists), it also follows a general trend in social and moral psychology. Joshua Knobe, for instance, has shown that much folk psychology does not follow the expected, ‘linear’ model of reasoning we might expect: just as the acceptability of a solution can effect one’s acceptance of climate science, the ‘Knobe Effect’ tells us that the moral acceptability of an act can influence one’s acceptance of that act as ‘intentional’ (Knobe 2003). Perhaps even more disruptively, Jonathan Haidt has argued that the empirical data implies that most people, most of the time, don’t reason at all, but rather engage in post hoc rationalization (Haidt 2001). These growing sets of literature combine with others to suggest that we perhaps shouldn’t be all that surprised at Inhofe’s and others’ move from ‘unacceptable implications’ to ‘bad science’, even if such a move violates the norms of logic.

[6] These are not self identified categories, but rather ways in which the Yale Program on Climate Change Communication groups American citizens based on their answers to a variety of questions regarding their beliefs about climate change. Those categories are the alarmed, the concerned, the cautious, the disengaged, the doubtful, and the dismissive. In this paper, when we refer to the cautious, concerned, or alarmed, we are referring to those who would be categorized as such given the Yale Program on Climate Change Communication’s criteria for differentiation. All of the Program’s studies and data, as well as interactive polling-data maps, can be found at their website, here: http://climatecommunication.yale.edu.

[7] Many relevant biases have been well explored (Gardiner 2013). Here we consider a bias not tied to the more general problem of climate change, but related specifically to the condition of not being sufficient alarmed by the current climate crises.

[8] These two strategies are advanced merely as a starting hypothesis; they are not intended to be a comprehensive list.

[9] Six people were killed by the floods that left more than 20,000 people in need of rescue (Vaidyanathan 2016).

[10] Flooding was blamed for the deaths of 23 people, making it the deadliest WV flood on record (DiLibreto 2016).

[11] Two people were killed in the flooding in Ellicott City as a result (Dance 2016).

[12] The fate of climate change discussion on the Democratic side of the 2016 election is an interesting case study in exploring these factions of American voters. Senator Sanders seemed to have the support of many of the 17% of alarmed voters, as both he and they discussed climate change loudly and often as a genuine legislative priority. Hillary Clinton, on the other hand, although not hostile to climate change policy, seemed much more comfortable with the majority position that climate change ought to be addressed, but that there are other priorities.

[13] Although still down from its high point of 18% in 2009.

[14] That contention ought not be read as an endorsement of either party or any particular candidate. It is, in fact, a sad and somehow uniquely American issue that admitting the existence of climate change has become, for a vocal minority, a politicized issue. Nonetheless, in both parties, you can find leaders who favor bold climate action—albeit in different ways (Schwartz 2017). We hope that phenomenon can become more widespread. In fact, it is our greatest hope that President Trump himself will eschew his current position of climate denial. After all, barring a cataclysmic political event, that is the only way in the next four years to obtain an Executive who takes seriously the pragmatic and moral dangers that climate change presents.

[15] See note 15.

[16] For those who think this claims sounds too extreme, some simple math demonstrates its veracity. As Bill McKibben has powerfully articulated, the amount of oil currently in known reserves—oil that we will burn, so long as it is economically viable and we are not prohibited from doing so—is about five times the amount that would guarantee that we pass the two degree temperature rise threshold. For all of the relevant data, see McKibben’s (2012) and (2016).

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *